Tuesday, April 3, 2012


By Patricia McBroom 

      It was 2005. A group of environmentalists had just seen a report that made their hair stand on end. Fish in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta had dropped off the edge of the table; their populations were crashing. Gathering up charts that showed fish populations plummeting as pumping increased during the decade, the environmentalists presented this evidence of collapse to a room full of water exporters and officials meeting at the Sheraton Hotel in Sacramento.
Loss of the tiny Delta smelt stopped some pumping
      “There were audible gasps,” recalled one member of the group. ”They were pumping water (out of the Delta) like hell. They told us not to come back with this kind of 'pseudo science'. They knew that once knowledge (of the fish collapse) became public, they would be held accountable. And by golly they have been.”   
       Since then, water contractors importing water from the Delta to the south have been forced to reduce diversions under provisions of the Federal Endangered Species Act, an event that led west San Joaquin farmers to post signs along Interstate 5, shouting: “Congress Created Dust Bowl.” Contractors also set to work on the modern version of a peripheral canal, with the purpose of taking just as much water as in 2005, but without killing the fish.
Signs along Interstate 5 blame Endangered Species Act
         It doesn't seem to be working.
        Try as they may, water contractors can't prove that moving the point of diversion –taking water upstream on the Sacramento River and funneling it under the Delta through enormous tunnels – would help the fish. On the contrary, their own analysis, released at 10,000 pages on Feb. 29, shows that the amount of water they want to take would probably doom the species they intend to save, particularly Delta smelt.
        “It's a challenge,” said Jerry Meral, California's deputy secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, in charge of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP, aka peripheral canal) “We must improve the proposal to meet the adverse effects on key species, but we don't know yet what alternative will work.”
        That's putting it mildly.
        Last week, a panel of the nation's top scientists weighed in on the causes of the ecosystem/fish collapse and the scope of California's water challenges. After two years of study, the panel from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said they could not identify the main drivers of the collapse. In other words they could not rank the most harmful stressors in the Delta, whether pollution, dams, invasive species, food availability, habitat loss, fish entrainment in the pumps or amount of water pumped out. All were having an effect in a complicated and still mysterious ecosystem.
       But in several places in the 280-page report, the scientists identified fresh water flow as a critical variable.
      “Statistical evidence and models suggest that both flows (amount of fresh water) and flow paths (route through the Delta) are critical to population abundance of many species in the Bay-Delta.” the panel wrote on page 105. If California wants to maintain an ecosystem like the one that seemed to be functional until the drought from 1986 to '93, the report said, “then exports of all types will necessarily need to be limited in dry years.”
Vast Sierra watershed nourishes all living beings in California
      Few issues in the current water wars are more contentious than the amount of fresh water that is allowed to flow from the Delta watershed in the high Sierras to the Pacific Ocean. Those who want higher flows (environmentalists and Delta advocates) like to taunt water importers by saying they are “trying to save the fish by removing them from the water.”
       Water contractors respond that fresh water flowing into the ocean is “wasted.” Environmentalists, they say, are ignoring all the other causes of estuary degradation; flow is no more important than other stressors. The NAS scientists were unable to resolve the controversy, saying only that “it's up to the State to insure that necessary in stream flow levels are maintained” (p. 178)
      This was not the result water importers hoped for when they encouraged the U.S. Congress to enlist the help of Academy scientists in finding some alternative to water cutbacks. Throughout the years since 2005, importers south of the Delta have done everything they could to shift attention away from the water they were pumping to other kinds of stressors on the system. It's the invasive fish species. No, it's the ammonia from Sacramento sewage plants. No, really, it's the location of the State water pumps on the San Joaquin River near Tracy, where the power of the engines makes the river flow backwards and chews up all the juvenile fish which otherwise would reach maturity in the relative security of the Sacramento River.
      Unfortunately, it's all of them and more. And above all else looms the special impact of drought.
New Carquinez Bridge over a narrow strait, through
which Delta water exits to the San Francisco Bay.
Credit: Patricia McBroom

      In its natural condition, unimpeded by human water diversions to the north and south of California's Delta, this great watershed would send down some 40 million acre feet (MAF) from the Sierras to the ocean in an average year (acre foot = one acre covered to a depth of one foot). The water would oftentimes bury the Central Valley in floods and crash through a narrow channel, called the Carquinez Strait, in the Coastal Range. All but separated from the San Francisco Bay and bounded by highlands, the water does not fan out in a wide ocean-side Delta, as do other freshwater estuaries. Rather, it is one of only two “inverted” deltas in the world (the other is in Portugal), where the unique geography leads to a buildup of sediments – in this case peat soils – on the inland side and gives rise to rare opportunities for water engineering infrastructure. California's Delta is one of the most modified in the world.
      In average years, diverters north and south remove about 50 percent of the flow to serve 25 million people and millions of acres of agricultural land. (The watershed itself produces about half the fresh water in the State.) No one knows for sure if this rate of removal is too high for the ecosystem; there seems to be no evident threshold below which there are irreversible declines. But the NAS scientists were unequivocal about drought. “It is clear that very dry periods can alter species composition in more permanent ways.” they wrote.
      To build a peripheral canal, supporters of the BDCP will need guidelines on how much water they can divert from the Sacramento River. The agency burdened with providing those guidelines by balancing human and ecological needs in the Delta is the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) or simply the “water board”. Those decisions, however, are two years away, leaving all combatants in the water wars wondering how the water board will come to terms with the clashing needs of ecology and human use. How will they balance economic needs, political pressure, urban use and the public trust, especially in light of the lack of scientific certainty?
      The board has already decided, in a public trust document published in 2010, that the ecosystem and fish, if considered alone, need 75 percent of unimpeded flow from the Sacramento River (compared to the current 50%). Such numbers make water diverters everywhere blanch. “It scares us to death!” said Tib Belza of the Yuba County Water Agency at a recent north state water forum.
      But the final number reached by the board is sure to be less than 75%; how much less, nobody knows until the board completes its balancing act. There is, in short, no easy way forward, considering the single-minded focus of major water diverters – the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles and Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley – on a mammoth peripheral canal.
PLC's Jonas Minton
      Which brings us to California's moment of Zen: focus on what is squarely in front of the eyes and take the next step. That's what combatants in the water wars have decided to do in forming a new coalition to move forward on important, near-term projects for the Delta that everyone can agree upon.
        Responding to a call from Jonas Minton of the Planning and Conservation League, water warriors have signed their names to the cooperative venture which meets for the first time April 4 in Sacramento to talk about what they might do now – together – while they battle over future distributions of water.  The group includes representatives from Metropolitan and Westlands, along with environmentalists and Delta supporters, who have been at odds for years.
      “This is not a substitute for any long term, future plans,” Minton emphasized. “In no way is this to interfere with the outcome or preclude any outcomes from the BDCP or the Delta Stewardship Council or the Delta Plan or anything else.”
      Minton said the coalition might decide upon strengthening the levees, or creating more habitat in the Yolo Bypass, or getting rid of invasive weeds in the Delta channels.
      Imagine. Action rather than words. And maybe the first step toward rebuilding trust.